I Spent 6 Months Volunteering & Here’s Why I Feel Every Indian Millenial Should Do It Too

Posted by Rachit Shah in Travel, Volunteerism
March 7, 2018

Early August last year, it had only been 3-4 weeks since my descend from the mountains after spending three months volunteering as a teacher at Haji Public School in Kasmir, and it was already time to pack the bags again. It was not the same packing list though. I did not have to limit to one bag that I would have to carry up to a steep mountain or have a mule to do so. I did not have to pack heavy jackets that would help me keep warm in the stormy weather of the Himalayas. This time I was going down to the equator, to the hills there. The Green Hills of Africa (Hemingway owns the rights to this phrase, I merely borrow it).

Safari in the savanna of Kipedo Valley National Park 

I went to Uganda for a six-month volunteer designer role at Design Without Borders. My base was in the capital city, Kampala, but I got excellent opportunities to go on field trips in all directions and into the inner corners and curves of this foreign but beautifully inviting land. Writing this piece has been a struggle over many nights. I kept debating as to what all things I should write about. In six months, when you hardly have the same routine for two continuous days, a lot happens. I was wondering if I should write about the projects I was involved with or the people and their sense of humour or the culture and traditions I came across or my travels into the wild and going for safaris in the savannas or the beauty in the heart of Africa. There were many options, and for each, I am sure I could write a long passage. But then I thought, one can get all this information by reading books like the one I am reading now (‘The Shadow Of The Sun’ by Ryszard Kapuściński) and by watching interesting travelogues. So, I decided to type down a few thoughts that have crossed my mind in the last few months, and some of them have now rented a small space in my internal world.

Life in one’s mid-20’s is a bumpy ride, I have been out of college and looking for my true calling for far too long, but I still feel that I have different possibilities to try out. Giving answers to questions like ‘What do you do?’ is getting trickier with each passing month. I feel like I am doing things (travelling, trying different jobs, experimenting) that I should have done 5-6 years ago.  Why do we just follow the crowd and do what everyone is doing in our early 20’s, and then later complain that we missed the bus? I wish that we in India have a compulsory system of taking a gap year between school and college, to go volunteer (internationally, if possible) and learn to be more broad-minded and inclusive. And understand and experience the real joy of giving and the beauty of barter before we become money-minded, and the societal pressures escalate. Just not be at home and bear the heaviness of it; being away from the usual people in our lives helps us as individuals to introspect and understand what we really want to do. I think.

I have made a few questionable decisions in the past two years. First was in the summer of 2016. I was on a road trip, travelling with a few friends. On one particular night, when we were in Siena, it was past midnight, we were staring at the night sky lying in the centre of Piazza del Campo, which is regarded as one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares, and I suddenly had this all-consuming sense of being selfish and undeserving. It felt like I was cheating, living this privileged life in Europe, working on projects and products for people with insurances. That same night I booked my one-way flight back to India. I had felt that I should not be wasting my life like this, drinking good wine in Tuscany, I should instead be doing something for the underprivileged and the poor. I still sometimes work on those very same projects and products, but now it is just to pay my bills.

After coming back to India, I spent the first six months volunteering and spending time doing bits and pieces with some grassroots level NGOs that operate in the healthcare sector in and around the city I am from. These six months were practically wasted, nothing much came out of it. I felt very stupid, having left a comfortable life abroad. But in retrospect, I feel like those six months prepared me for the coming one year. I went to volunteer as a teacher for three months. I had never taught before. Next, I went to volunteer at a design studio in Uganda. I had never been to Africa before. Both these roles were satisfying beyond measure, and there are absolutely no regrets attached. Volunteering, at least the kind that I did, is full-time work. One has deadlines, and it can get tough. You put in a lot of efforts for very minimal monetary returns. In some organisations, you are working and doing the same amount of work as the other ‘employees’ of the organisation. I personally struggled a lot with this fact, but in the end, I realised, that the intentions behind doing what I was doing and actually getting to do that, was motivation enough to continue working relentlessly without worrying about money.

Working with last mile communities

Another thought, our generation has roughly another 40-50 years to live. With the way the population is increasing and the way we are exploiting the natural resources, unfortunately, we are going to leave this planet in very bad health. It will be our doing and the next generation is definitely going to put the blame on us. I recently read an article that suggested that with the improving healthcare practices and decreased mortalities, the human population is bound to keep on increasing and it is expected to plateau around 11-12 billion. That’s almost 50% more of us than we already are. Currently, 54% of the human population lives in urban areas, this number is expected to become around 67% by 2050. That means our urban slums and the already congested cities are going to get worse. Using these statistics, I am trying to get to the point of how important it is for us to conserve and reduce. We have to put our 2-minute pleasures on the side and stop the use of plastic products. We have to go solar, go organic, conserve water, recycle wastes, use public transport and implement all of that Class 8 Science Textbook content. Most of these ‘go-green’ projects are very poorly developed and implemented in our country, so why not be opportunistic and work in these fields? For the money loving you, there is that in this too.

Too many of us.

Personally, I do put a majority of the blame for a lot of the problems in India on the massive size of our population. Throw eggs on me for this, but I think China’s One-child policy was a winner. They have come down from 2.8% population growth rate in the 70’s to 0.5% today. When I started my role in Uganda I was given a choice of 3 projects to pick from, one of them was related to developing a tool for Family Planning and Reproductive Health. I took no time in picking that one. In the six months that I was there, working with the team to develop this tool, I talked and held discussions with hundreds of Ugandans and even refugees from South Sudan about contraceptives, abortions, unwanted pregnancies, early marriages, cultural traditions, domestic violence, male-dominated society, male-child preference, polygamy and alcoholism. These and many others are all the factors that indirectly affect the decisions of Family Planning. We developed the tool that enabled talking over these topics that are dealt with silence. People there, even the illiterate, after a slight instigation, openly talked about these issues and were eager to know more about the possible solutions. Can we, the Indians, soon to be the largest population in the world, please start talking about them as well? I remember that one of the evenings I was at a friend’s place telling all about this project and I realised that I have openly discussed these things in Uganda for so long but not once have I had a conversation about them with people from my own country. Sex education at school was a joke; parents never talked to us about it, my friends were probably equally unaware of these things. We have to change this, I thought.

In Uganda, I was surrounded by a very international crowd, people coming from all the different parts of the world to work in the development sector, do humanitarian and aid work. During the day, I would work with eight people; then I used to sometimes go for group workouts where there were 20-25 more of these people, and then in the weekends I would meet many more of them at house parties and sports clubs. I have come back having debates after debates on why do humanitarian work, why work with NGOs, why develop things for communities who have not really invited us to come and improve their lives, why spread the western thought of living as the ideal way of living. My thoughts on this are not fully developed, I say whatever is in my mind at that time, there is a reason and a drive somewhere inside, but I can’t articulate it just yet. And so, I get remarked as being ‘naïve’. Someone at a new year’s party told me, ‘You think it’s that easy to improve the lives of the refugees? It looks like this is your first job, you are new to this world!’ I don’t know, but I am sure it is not rocket science, and if we all honestly join hands to work together, it maybe is possible to improve the refugee lives. It’s just a thought.

In the last 28 days, that I have returned home, I have argued with my Dad 21 times. He calls them discussions, but we always agree to disagree. Who do we, the millennials, blame for giving us the guts to stand up to our parents and talk at the same level, to disagree to what they say? All I keep hearing is that ‘I never used to talk like that with your grandfather.’ When I go away from home, I fall into this ritual of every-Sunday-Whatsapp-call with the parents. During these calls that usually last 30-40 mins I gossip with my mom about what’s happening with some of the interesting people in our lives and who’s doing what and complain about how I once again messed up cooking a dish she has taught me several times and then with dad it would be a brief conversation to confirm that I am keeping well and I am still thinking on what I would like to do long-term. These Whatsapp calls were brilliant. I miss them. It would give such a sense of relief, that yes, I am not a bad son who does not keep in touch with his parents and that I have the next seven days to just be myself and do whatever I feel like without permission. Why is staying at home with them not the same, despite them giving me all the space that I need, it should feel better than those WhatsApp calls, no?

What’s going to happen next? Where is my next train or flight ticket going to lead me? I have no idea. I am going to soon start sending out emails to people I would like to work with. We will see. Last year, I volunteered for 70% of my working hours and donated 20% of what I earned. I have started reading The Indian Express more than The Times of India because to me the former is more leftist. I do not have an anchor yet, and I am still in deep-sea waiting for the wind to pick up and for my boat to sail again. I know the directions for a few of the shores I would like to touch, and I will navigate to my best ability.